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Colleges nurture faith, work connection


At Boston College they call it Intersections. At Loyola University of Chicago they call it EVOKE. At Notre Dame it’s the Notre Dame Vocation Initiative, and at the University of Dayton it’s the Program for Christian Leadership. At St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., it’s the Program of Faith, Learning and Vocation. Though the names differ, all of these programs share a common vision: to promote and nurture a sense of vocation on college campuses.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, more than 30 colleges and universities, Catholic and non-Catholic, have launched campus-wide programs devoted exclusively to the theological exploration of vocation. Though many of these programs are in their infancy, they are enjoying early success and making their mark on the campus culture by providing an umbrella program for retreats, faculty seminars, service and prayer experiences and student research grants.

For college students, participation in such programs broadens the way they think about vocation.

“Vocation … definitely not a word I ever thought I would be using, at least not in relation to myself,” said Kristy Hernandez, a 20-year-old junior accounting major at the University of Notre Dame. “A lot of us have the perception that in terms of vocation, if you aren’t talking about the religious life, you are talking about those few people in every graduating class who have these far-off and amazing plans like joining the Peace Corps or doing service work, not the people like the rest of us who will more than likely get a 9-to-5 job, working with balance sheets and press releases, calculators and depositions on a daily basis. It took me awhile to realize that just because I will have an office job in corporate America does not mean I cannot have a vocation.”

Hernandez was one of seven students to receive a research grant from the Notre Dame Initiative, and at press time was preparing to travel to Northern Ireland to speak with Catholic schoolteachers in Belfast about their understanding of vocation.

Sarah Luckhaupt, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Dayton, expanded her understanding of vocation through her participation in the Summer Workshop in Leadership and Vocation, a four-day residential program for incoming University of Dayton freshmen. She joined some of her peers mulching, weeding and cleaning an inner-city middle school playground and participating in theological reflection seminars devoted to the topic of vocation.

“After attending different seminars I realized that a vocation could be a calling from God to be a teacher or to be a doctor. A vocation is using your gifts to help the world around you in God’s name, not necessarily a call to be a nun or a priest,” said Tom Hardej, a 21-year-old senior math major. Hardej participated in the Boston College Halftime program, a “weekend of looking back and looking ahead” offered to students in between their sophomore and junior year.

“I’ve realized I have multiple vocations. I’m a brother, a son, a friend, a student, an intern, etc.,” Hardej said. Participation in Halftime, for Hardej, has led him to the realization that discernment of vocation does not end with college graduation.

“I was really scared about the future and what my post-college life would be like, but after experiencing Halftime, I’m not really scared,” Hardej said. “I’ve always been one of those people who likes to plan ahead meticulously, but I’m dealing with the fact that that’s not always the best way to go about things.”

For Valerie McDaniel, a 20-year-old music major at Loyola, participation in Loyola’s On Call program gave rise to an important career realization.

“I had an epiphany,” she said. “I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor and that music therapy is a better route for me. On Call and EVOKE played a special role in this epiphany. It finally hit me, to my parents’ dismay. So I’m at a new point in my career search where I’m wondering if I messed up my future or took a turn for the better. The fabulous thing is that I have people I can turn to with thoughts of concern or excitement.”

Providing such mentors on campus for students to turn to is one of the goals of such programs, which have led to the creation of vocation initiatives not only for students but for campus faculty and staffs.

At the University of Dayton, the goal is to “create a pool of interested and compassionate faculty who will embrace these issues of vocation,” according to Maura Skill, the director of the Program for Christian Leadership. “How can we create an environment for our students to talk about vocation if our faculty doesn’t understand it?” Faculty members at the university receive research grants to explore matters of vocation as they relate to their particular discipline.

At Boston College, Intersections funds are used to “actually buy out one of a faculty member’s courses” so that she or he can use the time to research the question of vocation more deeply, according to Burt Howell, the program director. “We want to help faculty to be good listeners and guides for students exploring their vocation,” he said.

Lucien Roy, director of EVOKE (Eliciting Vocations through Knowledge and Engagement) at Loyola, agreed that vocation initiatives reach beyond students and extend to faculty and staff.

“One of our explicit goals is to influence the culture at a university. When the culture is more focused on vocation, then individuals are more likely to pay attention,” Roy said. One of the most successful components of EVOKE, according to Roy, is a 48-hour summer institute during which faculty and staff are asked to focus on their own experience of being called. Having faculty and staff meet together has its benefits, he said. “Everyone is an expert on their own story. They can share it equally regardless of the role they play at the university.

“We use Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation,” said Roy, “the definition as ‘where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.’ We’ve found that everyone can understand that, even outside the context of religion.”

Utilizing a broad definition of vocation proves to be important in launching these campus-wide initiatives, especially at places like the University of Dayton, where less than half the faculty is Catholic. “We also have people who aren’t Christian on our faculty, so we really have to talk about vocation in an integrated way if we want their vocations to impact how they talk to students,” said Skill.

The programs need to “target people who are at different points on the faith and spirituality spectrum,” said Julie Massey, coordinator of the Program of Faith, Learning and Vocation at St. Norbert College, where the most successful component has been the establishment of a core group of 14 students who serve as “Lilly leaders,” a “crew of students who are asked to work among their peers by creating programs that make connections between faith, spirituality and everyday life.” Student-led programs at St. Norbert have included everything from a Monday night faith-sharing group to a workshop on mindfulness and athletics offered by a student who is a nationally placed runner. This variety is important, according to Massey, because “some students would never participate in a campus ministry program. They would immediately think to themselves, ‘I don’t fit in there.’ The success in these vocation programs is that they draw students from a variety of places who share in common that they want to grow personally.”

The popularity of these vocation initiatives on college campuses has proven that “vocation is a hot topic,” said Stephen Camilleri, director of the Notre Dame Vocation Initiative. “We really feel like we’ve hit the bull’s eye.

“Ultimately,” said Camilleri, “we want students and faculty to look at how they are called and how they can use their gifts to change the world.” Vocation Initiative’s presence on the Notre Dame campus can be seen in certain attire. A popular T-shirt features tiny photos of 50 “models of faith” including everyone from Martin Luther King to Galileo to Mother Teresa. “Their gifts changed the world,” says the script underneath. A challenge follows: “How will yours?”

Renée LaReau is a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Kettering, Ohio. She was a recent participant in Vocare, a retreat and study program for Notre Dame alumni sponsored by the Notre Dame Vocation Initiative.

Related Web sites

EVOKE, Loyola University Chicago

Intersections, Boston College

Notre Dame Vocation Initiative

Program of Faith, Learing and Vocation, St. Norbert College

Program for Christian Leadership, University of Dayton

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003